GONZALES — An Ascension Parish grand jury declined Friday to charge with two counts of negligent homicide a Prairieville woman who drove off Bluff Road in late June, killing two children fishing at a bayou.
The 12-person grand jury’s unanimous decision to return a no true bill came shortly after District Attorney Ricky Babin, who is the DA for Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes, finished presenting evidence to the grand jury on Friday.
“I think the grand jury, like I said, agreed with State Police and found that although it’s a tragic accident, there was no negligence to a level of being criminal conduct that was displayed or to be charged with,” Babin said in an interview after the proceeding at the Parish Courthouse Annex in Gonzales.
In August, State Police found there was not enough evidence to arrest Shawnette B. Taylor, 48, of Prairieville, for the crash that killed Sarai “Ladybug” Lanus, 9, and her brother, Daylon “Duce” Lanus, 6, both of Geismar.
The siblings were fishing with their father, David Lanus Sr., 31, and two of his cousins in a bayou that runs under Bluff Road in Ascension Parish.
Troopers said at the time they could not find any conclusive evidence that Taylor was criminally negligent in the crash. Troopers handed their report to Babin.
Babin said he agreed with the grand jury’s decision Friday based on the facts his office has in the case. He said there was no evidence Taylor had drugs or alcohol in her system at the time of the crash, nor was she using her cellphone.
Babin noted that while grand jurors had to find probable cause to bring the charge, had the case proceeded, his prosecutors would have had to prove Taylor’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a much higher standard of proof.
“The death’s not the only thing to convict someone of negligent homicide,” Babin said. “It requires gross negligence, and the grand jury, I believe, just didn’t think that standard was met.”
Troopers have said Taylor drove off the side of narrow, two-lane Bluff Road in a curve June 24. The 2004 Nissan Armada that Taylor was driving went down a steep embankment off the southbound lane and continued about 100 to 200 feet, hitting the group fishing.
Sarai and Daylon died despite attempts by bystanders with medical experience to save the children’s lives.
With the criminal investigation ended, the State Police report became public record. Babin released it Friday, providing new details about the crash.
The report says the shoulder beyond the outside, white fog lines along Bluff is 6 inches wide. Beyond the asphalt shoulder is a 12-inch-wide ribbon of grass before the embankment begins sloping downward from the southbound lane in which Taylor was driving.
Taylor was driving 55 mph in a 55 mph zone, the report says.
The report also sheds more light on early and apparently false reports from Taylor that she said she saw two dump trucks stopped in the opposite lane on Bluff and had to swerve right off the side of the road to avoid a third oncoming vehicle that had entered her lane to pass the trucks.
Taylor did tell investigators that story initially, the State Police report says.
About two weeks after the crash, on July 8, however, after conflicting statements from other witnesses, Taylor recanted that account.
She instead told troopers that she saw a northbound white car drive close to the center line of Bluff. She drove right, toward the edge of the southbound lane with the intention of returning back toward the center of her lane once the car had passed her. Taylor lost control, slid down the embankment and “panicked and closed her eyes” until the Nissan stopped against a tree in the bayou, the report says.
“She clarified there were no dump trucks stopped in the road prior to her leaving the roadway. She stated she does remember the trucks being in the roadway after the crash,” the report says.
“She also stated there was no vehicle coming head-on in her lane that caused her to run off the right side of the roadway. She clarified this by saying the vehicle was in the northbound lane, and as it passed her, it was close to the center line.”
Accounts from two witnesses seem to support the second version of events. The witnesses spoke to investigators in late June, about a week and a half before investigators reinterviewed Taylor.
Tedron Kenner, 37, one of David Lanus’ cousins who was hit in the crash, told investigators he did not see any vehicles on Bluff shortly after the crash when he called 911 but did so later when help arrived.
Two dump trucks stopped then and the drivers got out to help redirect traffic, Kenner told State Police.
Another man, Carlton Haycock, who said he arrived about 13 minutes after the crash was reported to State Police, said he saw two dump trucks stopped in the road and the drivers were directing traffic.
Babin said his office and the Lanus family will have to accept the grand jury’s result.
“The family’s going to be disappointed, but we’ve been involved with the family throughout this process, so they’re strong and I believe they’ll, as we do, just accept the result,” Babin said.
Shayla Lanus, 31, the mother of the two children who were killed, declined comment on the grand jury’s decision when contacted Friday.
No one responded Friday afternoon to knocks on the front door and a ring of the doorbell at the Taylor home in Prairieville.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.